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Learn the amazing, obscure story of Josef Ganz…
Some time after the end of World War II, the world largely believed that Ferdinand Porsche was solely responsible for the development of the Volkswagen Beetle. However, a Jewish engineer in Germany was the real source of the design for the “people’s car” that would eventually provide cheap personal transportation not just for Germans, but for people all over the world.
Read more about Henry Ford’s bizarre social program to control his workforce here.
This much-forgotten Jewish engineer was named Josef Ganz. As you might imagine, Hitler and the Nazi regime did not want any of their nationalist-socialist dreams exposed as coming from a Jew, as that would hardly support the despicable theory of Aryan superiority and Jewish inferiority. For that and other reasons, Porsche was tapped to realize the Volkswagen, even though the war effort completely derailed production.
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Ganz, who was not only an engineer but also editor-in-chief of the German motor magazine Motor-Kritik, was a true visionary. The man was extremely critical of the German car industry and used his publication to attack German automakers with accusations that they were against progress because they were making cumbersome, overpriced cars priced only for the elite.
Like Hitler, Ganz had a deep respect for Henry Ford and his Model T, the car that gave Americans so much freedom of movement. He wanted to create his own revolutionary people’s car, which he insisted had a rear engine, backbone chassis, swing axles, four wheels and a streamlined body. Ganz regularly used Motor-Kritik to preach these ideas, which irritated his rivals in the industry. However, some listened and began to try to take over at least parts of Ganz’s Volkswagen. A reader became passionately committed to seeing the concept become a reality. That reader was, of course, Adolf Hitler.
As you might imagine, many in the auto industry didn’t take Ganz’s offensive criticism that way. Instead of trying to conform, they decided to discredit him and bury the journalist/engineer in legal proceedings. Ganz claimed that some rivals stole designs and applied for patents to prevent him from producing his Volkswagen. Despite these efforts, Ganz had enormous influence in the industry, collaborating with automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Standard, and Adler to produce several vehicles based in part on his ideas. Among these were the Mercedes-Benz 170 and 120H as well as the Standard Superior.
Others were influenced by Ganz’s concepts, though they put their own spin on their creations. One of those products was the Zündapp Type 12, designed by none other than Ferdinand Porsche. While the car never got past the prototype stage, it used many of the principles preached in the pages of Motor-Kritik.
Ganz further developed his dream Volkswagen on his own. One of the prototypes, the May Bug, he proudly showed off to other members of the press, including a demonstration of how it could drive under a truck trailer, as if that were the safe thing to do. Although a gifted engineer, Ganz was often reckless when testing his and other people’s vehicles, resulting in his injury in more than one incident. He also sometimes ruined relationships in similar ways, such as when he used the pages of Motor-Kritik to claim that the Standard Superior was his creation, transformed into an “almost feudal vehicle.”
When Hitler became chancellor without being elected and the bombastic leader began to solidify Nazi control over the country through intimidation and violence, it became open season for Jews. Ganz, however, was excitedly fixated on Hitler promoting the idea of a Volkswagen with all the elements Ganz had promoted, and at an affordable price. That, combined with a new highway system, would give Germans personal mobility on a scale like Ford’s Model T did for Americans. Ganz’s dream finally began to come true and he owed it to the Führer.
When the Chancellor attended the 1933 IAMA, the international motor show, in Berlin less than two weeks after taking office, Hitler delivered a fiery speech thanking the industrialists, technicians and designers for their efforts to produce better, more affordable personal transport to the German people. Ganz took the thank you note as addressed directly to him. He was hopeful that the Nazi leader would finally see his vision of a Volkswagen become reality.
However, Ganz’s rivals conspired against him. One of them even joined the infamous SS and used his position to press charges and imprison Ganz. He was eventually released, but he was still trying to face increasing legal challenges through his lawyer. Only when he was abroad did he realize that his enemies wanted to send him to a concentration camp. Ganz risked it all and snuck back into the country to retrieve his many sketches and other important paperwork in a daring mission. For the remainder of the war, Ganz spent his time in neutral Switzerland.
Ganz’s persecution did not stop with Germany’s defeat in the war. Although he lived in Switzerland, where he worked to create a “Swiss Volkswagen”, some former Nazi officials who escaped legal prosecution launched another smear campaign against him. Ganz was accused of being a communist secret agent, violating patents, etc. One reporter went so far as to call Ganz’s legal problems so vast and complex that they “threatened to paralyze the entire judiciary of Switzerland”.
Eventually, persecution in Europe was so severe that Ganz fled to Australia. He worked in a rubber factory and later for Holden, making minor engineering contributions, but nothing like the Volkswagen of its prime. Eventually, Volkswagen offered him a pension for his work on the Type 1. His health declined, Ganz died in Australia, his legacy and contribution to the Volkswagen Beetle largely hidden from the world.
For those who would harshly judge Ferdinand Porsche and his role in bringing about the Volkswagen, remember that after the war Ganz met with Porsche in Geneva where they talked about their latest engineering work. Ganz said the other engineer looked like he had “been through a lot.” That’s understandable considering that Porsche and his family fled to France when the Third Reich fell, only for a leadership change in the country that led to legal prosecution of Ferdinand. He served 22 months in prison before being released. The two men parted on good terms, so Ganz harbored no ill will towards Porsche. Both men had fallen victim to a totalitarian regime and had done whatever they saw fit to survive the terrible ordeal.
Source: The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen by Paul Schilperoord
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